A Word About Toilet Paper in the COVID-19 Era

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We know something serious is going down when people start hoarding toilet paper, which is exactly what began this month when word reached the U.S. that COVID-19 was coming for us.

I don’t know who started the memo suggesting people start stocking up on toilet paper to prepare for The Virus, but it seemed kind of like our country’s wealth balance: about 1 percent of the people got the memo and bought up all the toilet paper, and the other 99 percent were left wondering what the heck happened to their Charmin, and were forced to recalculate how many squares will do the trick, and how long they had before their toilet paper supply ran out.

In my house, I figure I have about 25 days before things start getting dicey.

Even so, I wouldn’t be talking about any of this, especially at a time like this — when COVID-19 is a life-and-death worldwide disaster that doesn’t just threaten lives but takes lives — except that the toilet paper shortage is a realty. And besides, while there’s really not a damn thing we mortals can do about the Coronavirus, other than to stay home and do our best to stay healthy, we do have control over what we flush. What’s more, thinking about toilet paper is a nice distraction from thinking about a pandemic that takes no prisoners, and the fact that we’re probably going to zip directly passed an international recession directly to a full-blown global depression. I’d rather think about toilet paper shortages than how scary and surreal and uncertain the world is right now.

To quote my 9-year-old grandson (who spoke with me via video call): “The Coronavirus has ruined EVERYTHING!”

I hear you, sweetie. It certainly does seem that way, doesn’t it?

Kind of reminds me of a meme I saw on Facebook this week:

Jan 1: “2020 is my year!”

March 20: *Wiping my ass with a coffee filter.*

Time here in the COVID-19 era moves so quickly. Things change minute by minute, hour by hour, so it seems years since we enjoyed the luxury of walking into any store and not just buying any toilet paper, but to have so many choices, back when only robbers wore masks in banks and stores. Remember those days?

Photo by Steve DuBois

Today, store shelves where toilet paper displays once offered myriad plys and tush-cushiony options *sigh* are as empty as a March 23 Cinemark theater. Lately, however, I notice that some well-meaning store employees have filled those former toilet paper shelves with the few remaining rolls of paper towels.

Photo by Steve DuBois

As if. As if  paper towels are just toilet paper’s bigger, brawnier cousin. Au contraire’, my fellow housebound friends. Ask any plumber and you’ll learn that paper towels are a plumber’s time-release goldmine. Same with those so-called “flushable wipes” – because the fact is, sewer systems can’t handle them, simply because those products do not break down – were not meant to break down – as toilet paper is specially designed to do. Once flushed, those seemingly innocent paper towels will result in an eventual plumbing disaster. Guaranteed.

By plumbing disaster, I mean that the stuff that’s renowned for running downhill will create a blockage, and up it will come in all its putrid glory, gurgling and oozing like raw-sewage lava, geysering into bathtubs, showers, and most of all toilets, sometimes overflowing up and over the bowl and onto the floor. Of course, after that,  you have no choice but to set a match to your house and walk away.

Not to get too off topic here, but I’m going there because I don’t know when I’ll have the chance again to address unflushable items, but friend and writer Dan Adams of Edgewood Plumbing once offered a fascinating list of items (hey, I asked) that should never, ever be flushed, unless you have nothing better to do with your money than have a plumber on speed dial and a direct deposit of money funneled to that plumber from what’s left of your retirement fund.

Here’s the list, other than the already addressed paper towels and wipes (and, sorry, but tampons and condoms too): matches, dental floss and toothpicks. Are you as surprised as I was to learn about those items? Dan explained that those seemingly little things get caught up in a fine mesh of tree roots which also snag bigger things (see above), until soon they form a truly impenetrable crappy dam. He said dental floss is one of the worst culprits. Who knew? Dan knew. Plumbers know.

You’re welcome.

The last time I was actually in a real store I saw a man carrying a 12-pack of toilet-paper. He had it firmly under one arm, like a quarterback clutching a football, ready to make a run for it. Shoppers slowly stopped and stared, until one man asked the question everyone wondered.

“Where’d you find that?”

The man gripped the package a little more tightly, and stepped back an extra step, making it about seven feet between us and his booty booty.

“I found it over there, on the bottom shelf. It was the last one.”

Everyone turned to look in the direction he’d pointed, which was beneath a roasted chicken display.

In this Twilight Zone era of COVID-19, nobody challenged the man. We just stood there, gaping at that improbable spot, wondering why the last package of toilet paper in the entire store – maybe the whole world for all we knew – was found there. By the time we looked back to the man, he was gone.

I later saw the T.P. man in another aisle, talking with an older guy who’d cornered T.P. man to inquire about the toilet paper. I caught just the end of the toilet-paper man’s response, “… over by the roasted chickens, but I got the last one … ”

At that, the older guy got all philosophical about the unnecessary fuss over toilet paper, and how much do we really need, and think about it, how often do we poop – two times a day, maybe, if we’re lucky. He said if we planned our pooping right, we could get in the car and drive somewhere else to poop, like in a store restroom, thus conserving the home front’s precious remaining toilet paper stash. The T.P. man just nodded and smiled, like he was obligated to pretend to care about a stranger’s b.m. strategy, because the enviable man with the toilet paper had basically scored a touchdown when he got that last package of toilet paper.

Here’s a practical question: So, seriously, what is a person to do, in a pinch, so to speak, when one runs out of toilet paper, and there’s none for sale, and no friends or family have any to spare, and corncobs, National Geographic pages and leaves are not an option? Sure, Kleenex is probably the next-best first-line, obvious substitute, and it’s probably OK (though don’t take my word for it, because I’ve not consulted with Dan). But when those Kleenex boxes, with just 85 2-ply sheets, are gone, that’s when paper towels start to look promising to desperate people, but you now know how that will end. After that, then what?

Well, here in Redding, our city suffered a massive sewer blockage as a result of something flushed far worse than all those unflushable items I mentioned earlier: cut-up T-shirts. Yes, T-shirts.  Oh, dear Redding, must you make it so easy for outsiders to mock us?

What’s amazing to me is that so many people – no doubt part of the 98 percent – collectively arrived at T-shirts as a viable toilet paper replacement that the mass of all those T-shirt scraps wreaked havoc with the city’s sanitation system, enough to warrant a press release asking citizens to please refrain from flushing T-shirts down the toilet, which you’d kind of think would be obvious.

I am not here to judge.

I do, however, come bearing some suggestions.

Buy a bidet. Actually, in some parts of Europe bidets are common. I hate to break it to you, but  Americans are sometimes disparaged for not having bidets, not so much out of a concern for conserving paper (but there is that) but because in places were bidets are the rule, not the exception, they’re considered more sanitary, and a more efficient means of doing a thorough clean-up.  One article I read on the topic of bidets quoted a man who went on and on about the vast quantity of toilet paper required to do a proper job. Basically, he said Americans walk around with dirty bums.

I cannot believe I’m writing about this.

But as much as a bidet makes such civilized sense, I see two immediate problems with that solution: First, bidets are kind of pricey (unless you’re going for the garden hose/kitchen sprayer model that jets a fire hose of icy water to your nether regions …  no thank you). Second, you’d need a plumber to install one, and good luck with getting on a waiting list for a plumber these days. (See paper towels, above.)

My other primitive, admittedly extreme solution is to yes, go ahead use those unflushables, but don’t flush them. Rather, deposit them in a bucket beside the toilet, one with a plastic bag and a tightly fitting lid. You can use doggie poop bags for each deposit into the receptacle, if that makes you feel any better about it.

City of Redding, I accept your thanks in advance for speaking about the unspeakable and helping save the city’s sewer system.

If you thought my idea of soiled wipes and paper towels in a bin beside the toilet was disgusting, I have two additional words for you: diaper pail. Those of us in that high-risk Coronavirus age-group remember diaper pails well. They were standard in every home that had an infant on the premises, and the process was simple. After a baby’s cloth diaper was changed, you took the soiled diaper, bobbed it in the toilet to shake off any solids, then you deposited the wet diaper into the bucket’s bleach-water solution and tightly – quickly – closed the lid. Eventually, you’d have to take the bucket, dump the entire stinky contents into the washing machine and wash the whole load in scalding water with more bleach and laundry soap. That process was followed for generations, and in fact, I used a diaper pail when I had babies in cloth diapers. It wasn’t fun, but it was efficient and cost-effective.

Guess what? That diaper-pail method would also work for those special T-shirt squares, especially if you were short on disposable T-shirts and were inclined to recycle them for future use. Again, no shaming here. What you do in the privacy of your bathroom is between you and your bod.

Or, you could follow the elderly shopper’s advice; wait for nature’s No. 2 call, and drive to a store to use its restroom. If there are any stores still open. And if the stores allow customers to use their restrooms, what with all the toilet paper theft. And then where would you be? Up shit creek, that’s where.

Second thought, just invest in a dang bidet and call it good.

In the meantime, we can dream of the day when the world is no longer upside down, when the pandemic is just a historical nightmare image in our rear view mirror, when people stop hoarding toilet paper, and in fact, when teenagers gather in groups and blissfully TP houses for entertainment; when we can hug each other and stand close to each other and go to movies and attend weddings, birthdays and funerals; and my granddaughter, after just a tiny tinkle, can once again spin the roll of toilet paper like something out of Wheel of Fortune, with enough toilet paper wrapped around her 6-year-old hand to resemble a mini Statue of Liberty torch.

Until then, staring cutting up T-shirts.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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62 Responses

  1. Avatar Bob says:

    “Wiping my ass with a coffee filter”

    Oh a light mellow brew I feel I drink often here…

  2. Avatar Erin says:

    My sister was in line at her grocery store in San Jose and was lamenting to the clerk about the lack of toilet paper – “I thought we were all in this together,” she said. The man in line behind her tore open the 6-pack of TP he was buying and gave my sister two rolls. 🙂

  3. Randall Smith Randall Smith says:

    Redding Strong is not the same as Redding Smart!

  4. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    Bidets are standard in the bathrooms of even the cheapest French hotel, though I do recall one that was portable. Seriously. It was like one of those TV trays that stand on wobbly X-shaped metal legs, with a vaguely 8-shaped plastic bidet on top. You filled it with water from the sink, did your thing, then dumped it.

    In lieu of that, there are easy-install bidets that will fit on the toilet, such as this one (this is not en endorsement):

  5. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    As I recall, the clogged sewer was at a pump at a neighborhood lift station, and probably the work of one household of flushers. To be fair to Reddingites, I would bet that close to half know better than to used shredded T-shirts as TP.

    • H A Silliman H A Silliman says:

      Well, the crisis is making for interesting writing! I think in some Mideast countries, folks use their left hand. Thanks for daring to write about this subject that touches (ahem) everyone. After all, a**holes are like opinions–everyone has one.

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        I read an account by an Indian fellow a short time ago in defense of that practice. He said that in most of India the process involves squatting next to a creek or lake so that water is handy, which is used liberally in the butt-cleaning process, and to wash the left hand once finished. He argued that it left them cleaner than a TP job.

        Probably. Just don’t drink the water. :::gags:::

    • 😉

      Steve, that’s mighty generous of you to bet such a high percentage to Reddingites who know better.
      Lord help us.

    • Yes, you’re right about the clogged sewer at one neighborhood lift station, so it’s not a citywide problem. (Yet.)

  6. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    As usual, I am ahead of the times. I’ve been using a bidet for 15 years, even since I did a story on them for the North Bay Bohemian. Dramatically cuts down on paper usage, far more gentler on the tush.

    I was in WinCo two weeks ago, just before it was stampeded. The lines at the checkout stands were just starting to get long. This dude was walking up behind people in line going “Achoo! Achoo!” at the back of their necks, to get them to make way for him. I gave him a big blue thumbs up with gloved hand. “See ya in the graveyard buddy!” I said. “I’ll save a space for ya,” he answered.

  7. Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

    My wife went to Walmart at senior only time 6am and got toilet paper, napkins and other items. Now that the hoarders have self isolated supplies are returning to stores not because of any government aid but because even self isolators do not need 2 years supply of toilet paper. The next big rush will happen when the hoarders realize milk, flour and cereal will rot in a few weeks.
    And the store announced that shoppers were to stay a shopping cart distance apart and my wife said they did with no shoving but then these were seniors only. The news posted, at least down here in Arizona, that the group most being infected was the 18 to 30 age group.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      I just got back from the Holiday Market in Palo Cedro—my first shopping in more than a week, so I was curious about stocks and shoppers. No TP, of course. Also no paper towels, flour, bleach, disinfecting wipes, etc. Running extremely low on pet food. Not too crowded, though. About half pushing carts, half carrying their items in their cloth bags (like me).

      There were two couples in their late 60s (my guess) having a conversation—no social distancing, blocking an aisle. One of the women was talking in a scratchy voice and coughing a bit. She was telling the others, “This is exactly as it was foretold by John the Revelator in the final book, and people aren’t going to like what comes next…”

      • Avatar Anne Thrope says:

        No flour on the shelves?

        Extra Extra! Coronavirus cures Palo Cedro of Gluten allegies!

        • Yeah, I’m really surprised about the flour and sugar shortage. I guess people are imagining doing a lot of baking during the pandemic. I was shocked – SHOCKED – yesterday when I went to Morrison’s Flour Mill on Shasta Street and the place was cleaned out of regular flour, and bread flour, and whole wheat flour. All that was left was unbleached pastry flour, and whole wheat pastry flour. I bought some of each. They’re not interchangeable with all-purpose recipes, but they’re perfect for lots of baking. (I’ll run some recipes soon.)

      • Steve, I think what you report from your Palo Cedro Holiday is a similar scene everywhere, and sounds like what I saw the last time I was out. As much as I want to adhere to the stay-home order, the delivery and even pick-up options at stores are so backed up that sometimes we must venture out, even when we’d rather not.

        I guess regarding bags, the new rule at most stores is that if you bring your own bag, then you load it, which makes sense.

        That’s a frightening performance from the couple at your Holiday Market. “People aren’t going to like what comes next?” Wow.

        • Avatar Candace says:

          As I mentioned before I used the WalMart app because I’m having trouble with Instacart. Anyway, I ordered Sunday and food was delivered today. $7.95 delivery charge ( heck, some people spend that daily on coffee). The delivery guy was friendly and quick with the unloading of bags ( I didn’t have to sign as the app said I would). He didn’t hesitate for even a second as if expecting a tip before he turned to jog to his car. I had to holler to catch him before he drove away in order to do so. The fresh raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and spinach look just as fresh as when I buy them elsewhere. First and positive experience with grocery delivery.

      • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

        I just got back from Winco. I masked and gloved up. Sparse crowd, absolutely no flour, which I found shocking for some reason. Still had the fried chicken dinner!

    • Interesting times, for sure, Bruce. Stay safe!

      (And yes, you’re probably right that the next wave of hoarding will occur when the early hoarders’ supplies start running low.)

  8. Avatar Karen Hafenstein says:

    Only you could write so eloquently (and funnily) about this content. My facial muscles got all confused with my wrinkled nose reading the “putrid glory” to choking laughter at lighting the match and walking away! Well done delivering a most important and scientific lesson about our digestive system and the sewer system where it all winds up!

  9. Tom O'Mara Tom O'Mara says:

    You really got to the bottom of this one. . .

  10. Avatar Jist Cuz says:


  11. Avatar JEFF HAYNES says:

    Well if this isn’t one of the crappiest articles I’v read in some time. Butt as long as that’s where we are going, let’s clean thing up just a little. I’v been using a bidet for a couple decades, got rid of the skid marks on the bed sheets. Now for the juicy part. I’ve become so spoiled with this gadget that I needed to find a replica for camping. Go to your nearest hardware store and pick up a one gallon garden sprayer, your newest bathroom accessory. Add one pint of rubbing alcohol and a dash of cologne and you have one hell of a camp shower for your whole body.

  12. Avatar Candace says:

    My daughter gave me an (easily installed) inexpensive bidet for Christmas, lol. Her boyfriend is Pakistani and to him not having one is pretty unthinkable. The one I have uses both hot and cold water and the “lever” just sits right near the seat. Mine uses only cold water (doesn’t bother me personally) simply because Lucy didn’t think I’d want her to drill a hole in my sink cabinet in order to hook it up. If anyone is interested in the brand of the one I have I’ll see if I kept the box or instructions (probably kept one or the other) and post it here. Oh, and because it’s a less expensive one there is of course no “dryer”. As far as the t-shirts being flushed …sigh. Also, thanks for the floss tip Doni, I don’t make it a habit of flushing things down the toilet other than the obvious but I’m guilty of having flushed the occasional floss.

    • Thanks for the tip, Candace. You’ve inspired me. (Warm water would be nice, but I could live without it.)

      Look how much we’re learning from one another!

      • Avatar Candace says:

        Doni, I’m sure you could hook it up to the warm water easily cuz, well, you’re you.

      • Avatar Candace says:

        Doni, just to be clear mine is capable of using both hot/cold water, I just don’t have it hooked up to the hot.

        • I just looked at my plumbing situation in my bathroom, and I don’t think it would be that big of a deal to punch a hole through the tub wall and extend hot water to the toilet wall. (I say that, until I hear from Dan to hear an estimate. If it’s too expensive, I’ll live with cold water just fine.)

  13. Avatar Joe says:

    Use Wet Wash cloth save in bucket near crapper. Wash in Cl2 and reuse.

    • Avatar Candace says:

      Joe, yep. A lot of “zero waste” folks have already been doing that for quite some time. I didn’t take that leap and it’s not my preference but it’s not like it’s crazy extreme and/or unheard of.

      • Avatar Joe says:

        Yep, white Wash cloths at Costco are cheap. I use very little paper for first wipe and wet wash cloth for clean up. One paper roll last about a month. Toilet paper is a Western culture habit.

  14. Avatar Barbara Cross says:

    Doni, your “essay” today and the comments by readers kept me laughing out loud. Just what is needed during this very strange time. Thanks to you and everyone who entered into this digital conversation.
    Keep smiling !

  15. Avatar Milo Johnson says:

    Humans have been pooping for thousands of years. Toilet paper as we know it is only about 100 years old. The story is actually pretty interesting:


    • Good point, and I think about that from time to time, more than I should. I’m kind of fascinated by the whole hygiene-in-the-old-days historical information.

      Thanks for the video. I watched the whole thing. Super interesting.

  16. Avatar Michael says:

    Why does everyone assume people are hoarding and panic buying? I haven’t seen anyone buy more than the normal amount all year, and hoarding is impossible now anyway because 1) the stores have per person limits and 2) there isn’t any to be found anyway. It’s been two solid weeks since I last saw toilet paper on the shelf at the supermarket or at Wal-Mart

  17. Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

    For those of us old enough to have used outhouses for the only toilet the main paper was the Sears catalog. And when indoor plumping moved those toilets indoors the main benefit was less Black Widow Spider bites.

  18. Avatar Gary Rogers says:

    GREAT story.

  19. Frank Treadway Frank Treadway says:

    I do minimal snake jobs for food. Redding area only, does not include outhouses.

  20. Avatar Karen Calanchini says:

    Doni, I am in the market for a new plumber for future use. Will you share the name of the company which you use and seem to have much confidence in? Thank you.

  21. Mistress of the Mix Mistress of the Mix says:

    “in a pinch.” You’re so clever! Thanks for the laugh!

  22. Avatar Rob Belgeri says:

    Couple decades ago, I had a job that put me in contact with wastewater treatment plant workers. One of the latter was a member of a committee I ran. One meeting, he was nearly a half hour late–and not in a good mood. He muttered something about “white mice” and “pain in the ass,” plus some other words the reader can imagine. When we took a break in the meeting, I asked if everything was okay at the plant. “Just fine, except for people who put tampons and a bunch of other unflushable nonsense down the toilet.” Turns out, he’d had his arm pressed into the headworks up to the armpit digging these delicacies out, then had to hit his locker for the emergency change of clothing he kept at the plant. Hence, his tardiness. Somebody else on the committee: “We’re all glad we’re too smart to do something like that.”

    Folks, wastewater treatment plant workers are the offensive lineman of municipal infrastructure. You don’t know their names, likely don’t care, but without them, you’re not getting much done.

    Think, “How’s this gonna play downstream?” Redding and Shasta County flushers. And in the words of Red Forman, Don’t be a dumbass.

  23. Avatar A.J. says:

    I finally figured out thr t.p. Obsession. Word finally got out that there would no more Sears or Wards catalogs…..either that or else it’s all marketing ploy of the bidet manufacturers. Of which, BTW, I’ve been a huge fan since traveling in Europe in the mid 70s.